Forests and poverty – a glass half-empty?


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The Tenth Anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is almost upon us. Coming out of Rio, the whole world seemed to agree that poverty and environmental degradation were in a vicious cycle. Most governments, international agencies, and NGOs came to believe that poverty contributes to problems such as deforestation and forest degradation and that one can

alleviate poverty by managing natural resources better.

’Poverty alleviation and tropical forests – what scope for synergies?’ by Sven Wunder at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), raises doubts about all that. Wunder notes that in many contexts when families get more money they use part of it to clear additional forest and expand their agricultural activities. Similarly, in many tropical countries

increased per capita incomes and high deforestation rates go together. What is good for the poor may not necessarily be good for the forest.

Likewise, Wunder expresses skepticism about whether natural forests can significantly help to reduce poverty. He acknowledges that forests and woodlands provide important safety nets for large numbers of people, who would face major hardship if they lost access to those resources. However, he argues that the potential of natural forests to actually lift people out

of poverty is limited. Giving poor people rights to valuable timber resources might achieve that in some instances, but it is politically difficult.

Wunder does not deny that conservation and development sometimes go hand and hand. But he does say that such ’win-win’ solutions are less common than most of us would like to believe. In some cases, to make poor rural families better off may require support for small-scale agricultural activities that lead to greater deforestation. In other cases, there may not be any way to promote conservation and still benefit local communities.

Unlike Wunder, I personally feel the glass is half-full, not half-empty. One should not underestimate the importance of protecting safety nets that are vital to poor people’s survival. Just because powerful interests may resist giving poor people greater access to timber resources does not mean that one should dismiss the idea as impossible. Compensating poor rural families for the carbon they sequester and the biodiversity they protect may ultimately provide them with a substantial income. Small-scale plantations and agro-forests, which Wunder’s paper does not discuss, also offer promising alternatives.

To develop effective strategies that produce tangible results on the ground requires clear thinking and serious analysis, whether one believes the glass is half-full or half-empty. Repeating fashionable buzzwords and pretending everything is all right will get us nowhere. Skeptics like Wunder force us all to think through our positions. As we move towards the next World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, now is a good time to read this paper.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of Sven Wunder’s paper, you can write Ambar Liano at:

To send comments or queries to the author, please write to Sven Wunder at:

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